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The Bill of Rights for Parents of Adult Children

The author of 'Parents to the End' says there are 10 essential rules for boomer moms, dads and their grown kids

By Linda M. Herman | October 24, 2013
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Linda M. Herman is the author of Parents to the End and a Seattle psychotherapist. She has led many parenting workshops and is the mother of two adult children. Her blog is Parents to the End.

From the original Bill of Rights to the ethical precepts put forth by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Americans have historically, if imperfectly, embraced the notion that living creatures are entitled to certain rights.

Given this esteemed American tradition, it is surprising that so few have expressed interest in the rights of parents of adult children.

Here, I submit 10 rights that I believe may contribute to the overall health and well-being of parents.

1. The Right to Be Free from Abuse Some parents find themselves the victims of abuse by their children, physical as well as verbal or psychological. In all cases, the abuser’s goal is to gain or perpetuate control over another.

(MORE: Estranged Parents and Adult Children: A Silent Epidemic)

Abuse is never acceptable. If you find yourself in an abusive situation, set limits with your child. End abusive phone conversations, refuse to give time, money, or advice until you are treated appropriately and don’t meet with the child alone.

2. The Right to Be Guilt-Free Parents feel accountable for what happens in their families. But when best intentions produce less-than-ideal results, guilt can easily creep in.

Some mothers and fathers may be subject to manipulation by an adult child who continues to hold them responsible for his delinquent behavior. Other parents find their adult child has rewritten a seemingly normal family history. (“Of course I overdrew my bank account, I never learned to control anything on my own.”)

No good purpose is served by being haunted with guilt forever. If your child will not forgive you, or you cannot forgive yourself, get help.

3. The Right to Peace of Mind Most empty nesters expect that, at some point, living without their children will result in increased freedom and peace of mind. But some parents discover their lives become increasingly strained when children leave home.

(MORE: How to Be a Great Long Distance Parent)

There is no peace for a boomer parent whose adult child is struggling with issues such as substance abuse, spousal mistreatment, health or financial problems, or criminal activity.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, “claim your peace.” That means giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself at your job, have fun with friends, continue your hobbies and take time to exercise.

4. The Right to Have Reasonable Expectations What constitutes a reasonable expectation for an adult child? Some basic behaviors can and should be universally expected.

Young adults living at home should be working or going to school, or both. They should contribute actively to the maintenance of the household.

If they are working full-time, they should take sole responsibility for their personal expenses, including their cell phone bill and car insurance payments.

It is reasonable to expect that parents and their children will speak respectfully to each other. And parents’ sleep schedules should be treated with consideration.

5. The Right to Be Imperfect Sometimes being a “good enough” parent is sufficient. A “good enough” parent recognizes his or her own strengths and limitations and, on balance, is comfortable about doing an adequate job.

Your adult children may have more empathy if you admit a degree of fallibility. And you will enjoy yourself more when you're not worried about having to be right all the time.

6. The Right to Decide to What to Do with Your Own Money Give financially to your children if you choose, but remember that doing so is a gift, not an obligation.

(MORE: How Not to Talk to Your Adult Child About Money)

Before making the decision, here are a few things to consider:

Parents do not owe their children the lifestyle to which they may have become accustomed. Nor do they owe their children money for traffic violations, fines, cars, furniture, frills or even necessities.

If you have children who have moved back home, be crystal clear about your financial expectations. Make a plan that encourages their eventual financial independence and works for both of you.

7. The Right to Decide What to Do with Your Time The most important gift you can give others (or yourself) is the gift of time. Distribute that gift with care.

If you are always available to babysit your grandchildren or dog-sit your child’s hound, you may be creating an expectation you will not be able to maintain. Worse, it could become one that will be upheld to your detriment.

The important point is that you are in charge of your free time. You do not need an excuse to spend time doing nothing but relaxing.

8. The Right of Selective Association It is each parent’s right to decide with whom he or she will associate. Most adult children recognize this and do not interfere with their parent’s choice of friends, business associates and romantic partners. However, this is a right that is not always honored.

Siblings may complicate the picture. For example, one sibling may be ready to “write off” another whose lifestyle or habits conflict with those of the rest of the family. But it is the parent’s right to choose to have contact with each of his or her children.

9. The Right to Retirement Some parents who are compelled to defer plans for their retirement have adult children who’ve been struggling financially or emotionally for years. The parental motivation is well intended: they love their children.

But parents have a right to reap the benefits of a lifetime of work; no child is automatically owed a bailout. Remember: there’s no reason to believe that an adult child lacking a work ethic will suddenly change with “just one more small loan” from his mother or father.

Adult children have years to prepare for their own retirement. Don’t be too quick to give away your own.

10. The Right to Say "No" This may be the most crucial right of all because it is a prerequisite for all other rights. Parents must be able to say “no” to stop or prevent abuse, to claim their peace, to control their finances and to manage their time.

Engaging in your right to say “no” may displease your children. That does not mean you are doing something wrong; in fact, it usually means the opposite. You have chosen to be authentic, rather than compliant; real, rather than superficially agreeable. And that’s your right.
 
This article was adapted from Parents to the End: How Baby Boomers Can Parent for Peace of Mind, Foster Responsibility in Their Adult Children, and Keep Their Hard-Earned Money by Linda M. Herman, LMHC, with the permission of the publisher, NTI Upstream.